Hot Both On and Off the Court: Willy Workman
Issue   |   Wed, 02/26/2014 - 00:07
Workman is averaging 10.5 points per game in 28.9 minutes.

After growing up in Northampton, Mass., attending Northampton High School, doing a post-grad year at Deerfield Academy and then winning an NCAA Div. III Championship playing basketball at Amherst College, it’s safe to say that Willy Workman ’13 is no stranger to the Pioneer Valley.

Over his four years as a Lord Jeff, Workman undoubtedly became a household name and prominent figure on campus, as many students can still recall the image of him walking around in his Amherst sweats, Adidas sandals with socks and classic purple Beats slung around his neck.

“He was the only person who could rock it and he did. He was quite literally the coolest guy on campus,” said sophomore Jesse Pagliuca, Mr. Gad's House of Improv member and former basketball player.

Others will never forget watching him on SportsCenter Top 10 Plays when it featured his missed free-throw put-back from Amherst’s thrilling regular season finale win over Middlebury in Feb. 2013. With only seconds remaining in the second overtime and his team down by three points, Workman was fouled and sent to the free throw line to shoot two. After sinking the first one, the then senior intentionally missed the second only to grab his own rebound and make an incredible basket to tie the game up, sending it to triple overtime. This memorable night marked Workman’s career high in points (30), and he matched his career high in rebounds (13).

Although this game was one of the many highlights of his collegiate career, Workman’s favorite Amherst basketball memory was “hands down winning the national championship last year.” Top-seeded Amherst defeated second-seeded Mary Hardin-Baylor, 87-70, in the final to cap off an All-American senior season for Workman.

“It was amazing. Playing in Atlanta in an NBA arena. Cutting down the nets. We celebrated all night. Don’t tell coach,” he joked.

The national championship was the perfect end to Workman’s collegiate career, what he calls the “most fun and fulfilling thing” he’s done in this life. Retrospectively, he especially values his team’s mutual devotion to the game and their devotion to each other.

“Winning always makes everything more fun,” he added. “The camaraderie coupled with the fact that we were good really took everything to the next level.”

With all that he’s accomplished thus far in his career, it’s hard to believe that just five years ago doctors told him that he probably wouldn’t be able to run again let alone play basketball. His junior year of high school, Workman discovered he was afflicted with femoral acetabular impingement (FAI), which meant that his hip joint was not shaped correctly, reducing its full range of motion.

“My mom and dad were the ones who kept me going,” Workman said. “They kept searching the internet and seeing other doctors to find answers.”

Workman’s father, who played basketball in college and semiprofessionally, was actually the first person to put a basketball in his hands at just the age of three. Workman’s older sister, Rachel, played college basketball at Rollins, so the sport was central to his upbringing. Although he always desired to play for the Boston Celtics one day, it seemed like a pipe dream to him as a kid.

Workman’s father owned a local restaurant, so he thought maybe he would eventually do something with that, yet those thoughts quickly changed after he started working there. Workman’s mother is a judge, so he also considered becoming a lawyer; however, an internship with a law firm in Springfield eliminated that idea as well. It was clear that basketball was his true passion and what made him happy.

As a child, Workman followed Amherst basketball and was drawn to the institution because the program had sent players to the pros before.

“I was more of a UMass fan to be honest, my father had season tickets, but I would always catch the Amherst-Williams game. I also grew up going to Coach Hixon’s summer camps and watching the team play pick up afterwards,” Workman said.

When looking at potential prospects, Coach Hixon’s interest was piqued by Workman’s unusual cadence in his playing style.

“He could go really slow to really fast. It was really unpredictable. That could be a minus, but it was really a plus in his case,” Hixon said. “Willy understands how to play the game, and as time went on, he better understood the game. It was neat to watch him grow.”

The two developed a close relationship, and Workman shined at Amherst under Hixon's coaching. Notably, he is the 18th all-time leading scorer in the program and one of 27 players to be a part of the “1,000 Point Club” with 1,416. While Workman was at Amherst, the team’s record was 95-20. His junior and senior year, the team went undefeated in the NESCAC, capturing back-to-back conference titles.

“It was awesome playing with Willy for three years. His basketball IQ was off the charts, and I always trusted him to, and knew he would, make the right play at the right time. Willy was a very clutch player for our team and made huge plays for us when we needed him most. We all miss Willy on court, but I think everyone that has played with him misses him more as a person off the court,” said senior Aaron Toomey, current captain for the Amherst men's basketball team.

Off the court, Workman admits he wasn’t as passionate about academics as he was about basketball. There was one particular faculty member, however, that he especially connected with while at Amherst. English professor Emeritus Barry O’Connell, the basketball team's academic advisor, taught him many lessons both inside and outside the classroom, including learning how to think outside the box.

“Willy Workman was a rarity among students these days — a deeply and truly free person, someone who knows himself, who is in possession of what he loves, and who brings a disciplined passion to all he does,” O’Connell said. “His maturity while he was at Amherst made him stand out as much as his independence. Teaching someone like him was not only a privilege but like having an equal in the room. All these qualities were evident on the court. He is superbly athletic, but his game is raised higher by the depth of his knowledge of basketball and his ability in the game to be completely focused and calmly strategic.”

Everyone who interacted with Workman could recognize his love for basketball, and eventually what used to always seem like a dream became a goal for him at some point last year.

“Dreams you only dream about, but goals you actually work for,” Workman said.

While in season, Workman was not allowed to speak to agents; however, the day after the national championship, an agent wasted no time and gave him a phone call. After researching him, Workman signed shortly after. The two agreed that the best thing for him was to go to Las Vegas for a summer league at a training facility to play in front of scouts. Though Workman acknowledges that he played against guys a lot better than him, his talent especially stood out to Hapoel Kazrin of Israel.

Currently, Workman is living in an apartment in Kiryat Shmona in the Galilee, which is in the northern part of Israel and very close to the Syrian and Lebanese borders. The city is about the same size of Northampton, which gives it a Western Mass. vibe, so he feels right at home. In his apartment building, there are four individual apartments, and Workman compares living there to having a spot in the Socials. Two other American teammates live with him in addition to a family with five little children, whom he plays with all the time.

Not only is it an adjustment to start living in a new country, Workman also had to adjust to the sport and the way basketball is played overseas, as there are different points of emphasis in the game. Because of the different rules in his current league, there is definitely a lot to learn, but Workman views it as just another facet to the game.

“It only takes a couple of moments to figure out who the Americans are,” Workman said. “There are all these different rules, and the Americans know none of them, so whoever can learn them the fastest will earn the advantage.”

Workman seems to be getting the hang of things pretty quickly, as he has played in all 20 games so far this season for his team, who is currently sitting in second place of the Israel-National League standings with a record of 15-5. Averaging 28.9 minutes per game, Workman has a 56.3% field goal percentage and his season scoring high is 18 points. Even though he is just a rookie, Workman is already looking to establish himself in the starting line-up. With games once a week, he has little free time, but he definitely makes the best of it.

Initially, Workman did a lot of sightseeing during his first weeks in Israel. The team organized some neat field trips, including visits to a local brewery and vineyards. However, on a day-to-day basis, the majority of his time is spent focused on basketball: practice in the morning, sleep, practice in the evening, sleep. When he gets a free moment, Workman typically spends his time outside on his porch admiring the physical beauty of the country, as the weather is typically in the 80s, or he will try learning a little bit of Hebrew.

“It’s sort of a two-edged sword in terms of the language. A lot of people speak English, so my Hebrew is not coming along at the speed I would like it to. I can’t write or read anything,” he said.

Although his Hebrew may not be progressing that quickly, Workman is still able to communicate with the locals.

“The people of Israel are an emotional bunch. They are very straightforward and some, although of course not all, lack a bit of a filter that most Americans have. They have big hearts and from time to time that spills out during conversation,” he explained.

Workman has also gotten in touch with his Jewish heritage, as every Friday in Israel is Shabbat, where most businesses close Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. While the sun is still up on Friday, many Israelis will go to a hummus restaurant. The first time Workman went, he absolutely hated hummus, but now the food has grown on him, so he eats it weekly.

As much as he loves Israel, Workman will return home this summer, as he misses his friends and family. In terms of his future with basketball, he is not going to restrict himself to any particular location and plans to go wherever the best place is for him both financially and athletically.

“In this business, things can change very quickly,” said Workman, whose ultimate goal is to still play in the NBA. “Everyone that plays basketball wants to play in the NBA. I’m sure no one else thinks I can do it except for me. But when I was 17 years old, and fresh out of surgery, the doctors told me that I wasn’t going to be able to play basketball again, so I feel like people can’t tell me where I can or cannot be five years from now.”

Nobody can know what the future holds for him, but Hixon and many others are confident that he will succeed regardless.

“Whatever he ends up doing, he’ll be successful at it,” he said. “Willy is a great, fun guy. A really good leader. His whole attitude was uplifting in any group he was in.”

“Have you ever met anyone that says, ‘I don’t like Willy Workman’? No. Everyone loves Willy Workman,” Peter Mack ’15 added.

When asked to give current students advice about Amherst, Workman commented, “Just enjoy it. Really enjoy it. You don’t get to Amherst or stay at Amherst if you’re not a super competitive person. Make sure you don’t just let it pass you by. Whether it’s in the library or at the gym, take time to realize how lucky you are to be at Amherst and don’t take it for granted. It’s a privilege. I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t get caught up in the grind.”

Do you want to know more about Workman's experience in Israel? Tune in to the following website Friday at noon for a live chat between Workman and fellow NESCAC standout Ryan Sharry (Middlebury '12) for an inside look on life as a professional basketball player abroad. Participants can sign up to take place in the conversation as an interactive audience member. Topics of conversation will include Div. III basketball, overseas hoops and the transition from one to the other.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/26/2014 - 17:11

Another TD alum doing big things... ho hum